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Archive Trails

As the Celtic Connections festival prepares to swamp Glasgow with its
musical diaspora of folk and roots based music, it’s worth noting that
the annual January shindig has done more than most to fuse the
traditional with the contemporary. Over in Edinburgh, meanwhile, a
similar if more conceptual venture aims to do likewise by having three
very modern artists delve deep into the place where the idea of a new
traditionalism arguably first began.

That place is Edinburgh University’s Department of Celtic and Scottish
Studies, more widely known under its previous name of the School of
Scottish Studies. Founded by folklorist Calum McLean in 1951 and later
influenced by the likes of Hamish Henderson and Alan Lomax, the School
of Scottish Studies played a crucial role in the Scottish folk revival
of the 1950s and 1960s, as ancient songs were unearthed across the
country and recorded in situ. Half a century on, as new generation of
artists are turning more and more to the material contained within the
department’s portals for musical inspiration.

Cue Archive Trails, a Creative Scotland backed initiative which begins
this week, and which finds a diverse trio of artists given unlimited
access to the archive over the next three months to influence and
inspire something brand new. Long-standing troubadour Alasdair Roberts,
who will be appearing at Celtic Connections alongside Cameroonian blues
singer Muntu Valdo, already has plans to reinvent Galoshins, a Scots
take on an English mummers play. Drew Wright, whose Wounded Knee nom de
plume has moved beyond techno and noise to explore twenty-first century
vocal rounds using electronic loops, will explore specific songs
contained in the archive; and sound artist, singer, film-maker and
member of Glasgow improvisers Orchestra Aileen Campbell will look more
at the broader historical context of the material.

“All three of the artists involved are interested in voices and song”,
explains Emily Roff, whose brainchild Archive Trails is. “That's what
ties them together, and makes them good candidates for a new music
commission in an ethnographic sound archive. But in other respects
they're a really diverse group. The idea is that between them their
very different practices will highlight several different facets of the
Archive. Alasdair's got a history of ballad-singing, and writes new
songs to old tunes or new tunes for old songs. So he's interested in
texts and tunes. Drew is also a singer but he's quite different. On the
whole he's more interested in lowland culture, popular song, and in
folk music from other parts of the world, and will be bringing some of
that to this project too. I think Aileen’s work will involve stepping
back from the catalogue a little and looking at the Archive more
holistically, investigating the human relationships behind some of the

For Roberts, whose album No Earthly Man made a selection of sixteenth
century murder ballads sound thrillingly contemporary, a connection
with the archive is long overdue.

“When I first visited it felt like it was my spiritual home’, Roberts
says, “and it felt like I should’ve been in there years ago.”

During his preliminary researches Roberts discovered a video of
Galoshins performed by blacksmith Andrew Rennie in the style he
remembered it from his youth. A chat with Roberts’ Auntie Valerie
revealed that Roberts’ family is related to Rennie.

“He was my father’s mother’s sister’s son or something”, he says, “so
it all connects up with my idea of incorporating other texts into the
original one, as well as songs and maybe puppetry. I’m sure it’ll go
off on a lot of different tangents as we go on.”

Wright may not have such clear umbilical link, but as anyone who has
witnessed his solo performances as Wounded Knee will know, he possesses
the zeal of a convert.

“It was the Alan Lomax collection of recordings that opened me up to
this other world”, Wright says of the American ethnographer. “Then when
you heard the Scottish selection, it sounded like something alien but
which was on one’s own doorstep. So this is a chance to hear all these
recordings, meet the archivists and get into all these spaces and tie
things together in this great big mix tape of Scottish culture.”

In terms of contemporary culture, Wright can see clear links between
work contained in the archive and the world of electronic beats he
initially sprang from.

“There’s sometimes a sense of traditional music being distilled what
you hear walking past tartan tat shops” he says, “but when addressing
traditional forms you can see it’s not that far removed from some dance
music. There’s a repetition and a groove in both, which is why I use
electronic loops on my voice. That comes from dance music. You have to
remember as well that the human voice was the first form of sampler.
That’s what folk music is about, collage and cut and paste.”

Archive Trails, as the name suggests, is an offshoot of Tracer Trails,
Roff’s DIY music promoting outfit behind the Herald Angel winning
Retreat! festival. As one might expect, Roff studied at the Department
of Celtic and Scottish Studies between 2005 and 2009, and “this project
has been in development within my skull for a long time. The archive is
a massively important resource, a public resource, too, which is

As the project progresses, updates of each artist’s finds will be
documented on a blog, while all three will tour together in the autumn,
taking their discoveries out into the world in a way that may well see
them representing 2011 in the archive.

“The artists involved in this project are all resolutely contemporary
in the sense that they're committed to exploring new ways of doing
things”, Roff explains, “even while they're also fascinated by our
cultural heritage. I hope that when people eventually hear the new
works that come out of this project, what they hear will be fresh and
totally engaging. I don't think the culture we're interested in is at
any risk of extinction yet, but neither do I think we're about
preservation or life-support. Folk culture is as healthy as ever in
Scotland, and so, fortunately, is independent music. The estuary
between the two is only becoming more fertile. So I believe Archive
Trails is tapping into something that's very current, very live. I hope
Hamish Henderson would agree that we're ‘borne on the carrying stream’.

Alasdair Roberts and Munto Valdo play the Tron, Glasgow at Celtic
Connections on January 19th.

The Herald, January 13th 2011



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